Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Knowing What You Love

In her 1996 paper on self-knowledge, Victoria McGeer proposes that one of the main reasons a person's claims about her attitudes are likely to be true is this: Once you avow an attitude (whether to yourself or others), you are thereafter committed to living and speaking and reasoning in accord with it (unless you can give some account of why you're not doing so). Since you have considerable self-regulatory control over how you live, speak, and reason; and since all there is to having an attitude is being prone to live, speak, and reason in accord with it, you have the power to make what you say about yourself true. In short, you shape yourself to accord with the attitudes you express. In McGeer's view, self-knowledge has more to do with this sort of self-shaping than it does with any introspective phenomenon of discovering attitudes that already exist.

Now, I'm not sure our claims about our attitudes are as likely to be right as philosophers often assume -- especially our most morally relevant implicit habits of acting and reacting, valuing and disdaining, in the ordinary run of life -- but it seems to me that there's something importantly right in McGeer's view here, especially with respect to love.

Suppose I'm up late with some friends at a bar. They're talking jazz, and I'm left in the dust. More to participate in the conversation and to seem knowledgeable than out of any prior conviction, I say, "I just love Cole Porter ballads." I could as easily said that I love Irving Berlin or Rogers and Hart. About all these composers, I really only know a half-dozen songs, which I've heard occasionally performed by different artists. My friends turn to me and ask what I like about Porter; I say something hopefully not too stupid. Later, when we're driving in my car, they expect to hear Cole Porter. When a movie on Porter comes out, they ask my opinion about it. I oblige them. Let's say, furthermore, that such a pattern of behavior isn't just a show for them. In light of what I said, I find myself more drawn to Porter in the future. This isn't at all preposterous: The psychological literature on cognitive dissonance, for example, suggests that we tend to shape our genuine opinions to match what we have said, if it was said without obvious coercion.

Thus, I have transformed myself into a Cole Porter fan by means of an arbitrary remark. It wasn't true of me before I said it; but now I've made it true. If love is a kind of commitment to value something or pattern of valuing it, I embarked on that commitment and began that pattern by making the remark. Its truth derives not from accurate introspection but from the fact that I work to make myself consistent and understandable to myself and others.

If I say to myself -- or, shall we say, decide? -- in the scoop shop that I love Chunky Monkey ice cream, I am at least as much forming a commitment, establishing a pattern, or creating a policy as a reference point for future deliberation, as I am scouring my mind to discover a pre-existing love. (Of course it's highly relevant that I remember enjoying Chunky Monkey so much last time I had it.) If I tell someone for the first time that I love her, I am not -- I hope -- merely expressing an emotion (emotions pass so quickly!) but embarking on a commitment of a certain sort, making a decision, embracing a habit of valuing her in a certain way. (This is partly why first confessions of love are so frightening.) Though the various phenomena we call "love" differ in many ways, it seems to me they share a self-commissive aspect in their expression that makes them ripe for an analysis along McGeer's lines.

Of course, there's a very different kind of commitment involved in deciding one loves Chunky Monkey than in announcing one's love for another person, and we think very differently about people who back out of these different commitments. But even with respect to the smallest love, we need a certain amount of self-consistency. One cannot ceaselessly and arbitarily flop around in one's loves and values and continue to be a normal reasoner and normal member of a community.

Similar observations hold, in varying degrees, for other attitudes: beliefs, desires, fears, hopes, plans. The introspective views of self-knowledge that dominate philosophy (e.g., Nichols and Stich, Goldman) don't give sufficient attention to this self-shaping aspect.

By the way, I'm tempted to think that this kind of self-knowledge through self-shaping can sometimes find a parallel in other-knowledge through other-shaping: Imagine a mother who announces that her four-year-old son loves baseball and then works to make it true. Or imagine Stalin announcing that his people despise Zinovievites.


Brad C said...

First, I think you are onto some interesting phenomena.

But I worry that your remarks might indicate commitment to a false dicotomy of sorts. You wrote: "If love is a kind of commitment to value something or pattern of valuing it, I embarked on that commitment and began that pattern by making the remark. Its truth derives not from accurate introspection but from the fact that I work to make myself consistent and understandable to myself and others."

Now I agreee that the introspection account is bunk for an attitude like love or trust - at least if the introspection account is conceived as a sort of "peering within" to see what you find.

But there is another option, sketched by (surprise) Wollheim, which is a combinaton of introspection and self-interpertation.

To motivate the need for a more interpretive account (for cases involving desires, emotions, and evaluative beliefs) I want to try to raise two worries about your examples:

(1) I have a concern about the authenticity of the loves you ascribe to these people. If these loves start from, and are explained by, bare assertions of love, the claims to love will ring hollow. Unless people feel certain sentiments (e.g. affection) in later situations, the claims to love will turn out false. Those sentiments being authentic are a condition of the love being authentic. But authentic sentiments are not the sort of things we can have at will or pill and, for related reasons, if they do exist it seems unlikely that they are best understood or explained as results of the previous assertions. There seems to be a dilemma: you can either stick to later expressions of love that ARE best understood and explained as the result of the earlier assertion, but then the expressions will seem to be restricted to things under our volitional control that would be naturally described as inauthentic love - you merely "acting as if in love" OR you can add more into the expressions of love so that they ground the claim that the person later authentically loves, but then the assertion will not not provide a good basis for understanding or explaining the love.

Of course the assertion may lead you to act in ways that provide conditions for you to develop or discover an authetic love, that does not mena that we can best understand or explain authentic love by appeal to the assertion; I think it that approach actually distorts our understanding.

(2) In lots of cases, there is a serious possibility of self-deception.

I want to love Jane because she is a sensible choice for someone to build a life with - she is lawyer and is very kind and my parents like her. Thank goodness she is not like the other girls I have dated; disasters one and all! I am at dinner and when she asks, I say "I love you and want to marry you because I love you so much!" I go on to marry her and - in order to live up to the commitment I made in asserting I love her (for good reasons no less) - I act the part. Now this not only brings home the previous worry about inauthenticity, it also raises issues about motivated self-deception.

In that situation I would surely wish that your account is right, but I doubt that we can shape our sentiments in so straightforward a manner.

Well, hope that is not TOO unclear.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

There's a lot of sense in what you say here, Brad. I overstated the case. There does indeed seem to be something inauthentic, backward, in "love" that arises from living up to an ungrounded, or insufficiently grounded, verbal expression. This seems especially so when we're talking about loving people; and especially so when it's self-conscious or involves what we might think of as self-deception.

And yet, not all commitments and valuings that are driven by a need for psychological consistency, a need to live up to an expression or announcement to self or others, will be experienced as inauthentic play-acting or have the marks of self-deception (to overstate in the other direction). There can be something quite genuine in them; and I guess my thought, put more moderately, is that that genuineness, and the importance of such factors, can be easy to miss in standard accounts of self-knowledge which emphasize introspection and what's antecedently felt.

Consider this parallel: A momentary, occurrent judgment ("ah, war is just so terrible it can really never be justified!"), while it is not the same thing as a dispositional belief ("war is so terrible that it can never be justified"), can authentically give rise to such a belief, if the agent allows it to lodge itself as a conviction. Likewise, a momentary twinge of passion for a musician, or a person, or a style of architecture, can authentically give rise to a love for those things, if the agent allows that passion to take up residence in a certain sort of way. In both cases, the accuracy of the announced attitude comes not so much from any prior conviction as from the agent's self-regulatory capacities.